Opinion

If the Senedd has a survival instinct, it needs to answer the question: ‘What is Wales for?’

14 Apr 2021 5 minutes Read
Picture by Senedd Cymru (CC BY 2.0).

Ifan Morgan Jones

The Welsh Conservatives are very unlikely to form the next Welsh Government.

This is because the other two largest parties in Wales, Labour and Plaid Cymru, can for the time being form a left-wing coalition to block them from power.

However, the Conservatives are likely at the moment to gain a lot of ground on May 6 and come quite close to toppling Labour as the largest party.

This is partly because of factors completely beyond Welsh Labour’s control – Labour are a weak opposition at Westminster, and the Conservatives are currently enjoying a vaccine polling bounce across the UK and some of that will no doubt feed into the Senedd election result.

But the Welsh Conservatives themselves are a changed party from the one which fought the preceding five Senedd elections, too.

Under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, they have tracked leftwards (but not to the left) on public spending, and rightwards on social issues.

Their announcements just this week that free prescriptions and a free NHS are now sacrosanct, and a promise to cut tuition fees, is proof of the former. They are no longer at least presenting themselves as the party of turning the taps off.

And like it or not a combination of nudging leftwards on the spending and being socially conservative may well be something of a ‘sweet spot’ for the Welsh electorate.

Despite the argument that Wales is some kind of left-wing haven, there is not much evidence that this attitude extends to social issues.

In fact, polling on matters such as immigration and gender identity actually suggest that Wales is now (and perhaps has always been) less socially progressive than many parts of England.

The Conservatives’ success may of course just be a blip – a high watermark of Toryism as we saw in the early 1980s which will fade as the political pendulum swings back to Labour.

But just as likely it is part of a long term trend. Wales has since its industrial peak slowly and surely become an older country, and therefore inevitably more conservative. The social and cultural basis of Labour and Plaid Cymru’s support are also in decline.

Meanwhile, the Senedd and Welsh Government as institutions seem to have had all the self-preservation instinct of a pair of lemmings. They have done nothing to try and stop these trends – in fact, they seem to have been very keen on speeding them up, perhaps in Labour’s case because they thought that any attempt to consolidate Wales’ distinctiveness would aid Plaid Cymru.

Superseded

Wales doesn’t exist as a national entity separate from England for no reason. It is there because it has served as a quite literal banner to rally around for various political causes over the centuries.

Wales was united to fight the Anglo-Saxons, then the Normans. In the 19th century, it was useful as a basis for Nonconformist Liberals who wanted freedom for their congregations from the established church.

Towards the end of the 20th century, Welsh autonomy was sold to voters as a way of protecting post-industrial communities from the treatment they endured during the Thatcher years, and Welsh-speaking communities from linguistic decline.

But the irony of devolution is that as Wales has become institutionally more and more distinctive from Westminster, its political, cultural and linguistic distinctiveness has decreased.

And if its political distinctiveness declines very much further, people will start to ask ‘what is Wales for?’ Why does Wales need to exist, if it’s politically, demographically, culturally and linguistically the same as England? What public interest does its existence serve?

A strong showing by devo-sceptic Conservative on May 6 – with probably a few outright pro-abolish Senedd Members from minor parties thrown in – might serve as a wake-up call in that regard.

The Labour-Plaid, Welsh Wales-Fro Gymraeg majority at the Senedd isn’t going anywhere in a hurry – they probably have two or three more Senedd terms at least before they will be superseded.

But if they do have any kind of self-preservation instinct they need to spend the next decade of devolution answering the question about how the existence of Wales as a separate political entity serves the interests of the people who live there, and use what political levers are at their disposal to bring that vision about.

And that need not mean simply trying to hold back the tide of history. The reason Wales has survived so far isn’t because it has stayed the same but because it has been constantly reinvented itself to stay relevant in the current age.

It needs to mean something and be for something. What is Wales in the 21st century? What is it good for? How does its existence improve people’s lives?

Coming up with an answer to that question which chimes with the electorate will decide on the future of devolution – and the nation as a whole.

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